The big image of the week is The Golden Calf. The ultimate u-turn of unconsciousness. The biggest, shiniest, recidivist party in Torah. The Israelites blow it big, and model for us how to be deaf, dumb, blind, impatient, and afraid. Not an example to follow, but a familiar enough one for most of us to recognize.
Like the comfort foods of childhood, some things exert a strong pull. The imagery of the 1950s Ten Commandments movie is one of those for me. While seemingly silly in our pixilated age, the images are still iconic. Everyone singing and dancing around a giant golden idol like they’re at an ecstasy-fueled rave, oblivious to their recently granted state of grace. The issue isn’t how many commandments the idol violates but what it represents.
After several margaritas, one of my friends told me about her “bad boy” phase. Choosing the gnarly motorcycle rider over the safe doctor. Enjoying sex, drugs, rock and roll instead of working in grad school or a career. We’ve all been somewhere similar, whether the siren is singing about sex, money, or rampant desire in another costume. Gimme, now! Feed me, now! More is better! Now! Now! Now!
The old saying about plumbers goes All you gotta know is that water flows downhill. That’s us, tumbling towards the abyss of our old bad habits. Our internalized bad boy reminding us once again that we don’t deserve better. We roll belly up what we’ve known and done before, no matter how bad for us it may be. We screw up the good we worked so very very hard to earn.
Is there an antidote to this psychic kryptonite?
No quick dose in Torah. We’re given forty years of wandering to make up for the calf. In our real lives, bad decisions cost us years of heartache, with sides of shame, debt, and worse.
One of the images this parshah evokes is not the smashed tablets or the mass frenzy. Rather, a kid blindfolded and spun thrice around and back at the beginning of a game. Lost and confused. How you feel when you genuinely don’t know why you’ve done what you’ve done, or what to do next, or next after that.
For all the noise and glitter, the reading invokes a quiet sobriety. Sadness about having made a bad wrong turn. One that requires not only remediation, but a depth of self-examination deeper than you’ve done before.
Lip service won’t be enough. You’re going to have to actually commit. To getting it right. To the long hard slogging path through the desert. To change.
Dig deep. Keep marching. One foot, one year, after another.
Along the way there are many teachings. Ones you want and ones you’d prefer to never know about. Lessons you can go to a movie the night before and still get an A+ on your exam. Others that will spin you in circles so wide and scary that you’ll long to tear off your blindfold.
Don’t get lost in the slogging. Keep an eye out for those feelings. Because if you can catch one at just the right moment, you can reclaim something important you might not even remember you’ve lost.